By SIERRA REOVSKY
Capital News Service
LANSING – With debate about ‘presumptive parole’ in the Legislature, the question arises whether keeping convicts in prison longer will actually prevent them from committing another crime once they’re set free.
A recent report from the Council of State Governments found almost no difference in the re-arrests rates of Michigan parolees, whether they’re released within six months of their earliest eligibility date or incarcerated longer. That was true regardless of the crime for which they were imprisoned.
“There is no correlation in keeping people longer in prison and keeping the public safer,” said Barbara Levine, associate director of research and policy at the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending.
“Most of those that committed a serious crime years ago present a lower risk to society, making keeping them in our prisons a waste of our money,” she said.
Most officials who support a bill passed by the House and awaiting Senate action say they want to ensure tax resources are used to protect the public and make sure new crimes aren’t committed, rather than spending the money on imprisoning people who committed crimes earlier. The Department of Corrections spends nearly $2 billion annually, including more than $1.6 billion spent directly on prison operations.
The state has approximately 5,500 prisoners eligible for parole of the 44,000 imprisoned statewide.
Those eligible for parole must have served their minimum sentence and must be assessed to determine whether they still pose a risk of committing another crime. Those who score high on probability for parole are at low risk, meaning they have a 5 percent or less chance of committing another crime, according to Levine.
“Prisoners that have a high probability for parole are to be released unless the state Parole Board has substantial and compelling reasons to deny release,” Levine said.
The Parole Board defines ‘substantial and compelling reasons’ loosely. Inmates have been denied release based on subjective assessments that aren’t clearly connected to an actual risk of committing another crime, the Department of Corrections said.
“Right now what the board is doing is looking at parolees currently at risk when assessing their risk factor and seeing if they need to be reinstated,” said Levine.
Referring to the presumptive parole bill, she said “It would simply give definition to the term ‘substantial and compelling reason’- it won’t create parole.”
“Presumptive parole” is a standard that the state Parole Board would enact, releasing prisoners who have proved well-behaved and nonviolent once their minimum sentence has been served.
If the pending bill becomes a law, the change would be phased in over five years. According to Levine, after the fifth year, the prision population would drop by 3,200, with $75 million in annual savings to the state from then on out.
Gov. Rick Snyder says the bill would create consistency in how inmates are treated but some law enforcement officials are skeptical, arguing it could lead to an assumption that offenders will automatically be paroled after serving their minimum sentence.
And according to the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, 30 percent of parolees commit crimes again. Attorney Gen. Bill Schuette, along with some county prosecutors remain opposed to the bill citing it as an “autopilot” program that would hand out early release.
But Nick Ciaramitaro, director of legislation and public policy, for the Michigan AFSCME Council 25 that represents public employees, disagrees. “By taking a position on the need to reform our prision system to get a ‘better bang for our buck’, we need to focus on finding ways to fund health, substance abuse and rehabilitation services.
“When people come out, we want them to assimilate back into the work force to benefit our communities, instead of resorting back to criminal activity,” he said.
Zack Pohl, communications director at the Michigan AFL-CIO, said the state must make sure those eligible for parole aren’t a risk to the community and can make a smooth transition back into society, rather than focusing on keeping prisoners incarcerated longer.
“Evidence-based parole reform would save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars without threatening public safety,” Pohl said. “We’re looking forward to smarter justice reforms so that Michigan can begin investing more into community-based programs that are actually effective at reducing crime.”
By SIERRA REOVSKY